Mad Scientists Take on Education

Each year, computer scientists from around the world take part in the International Conference on Machine Learning.

Sponsored by groups like Facebook, Microsoft, the National Science Foundation, and Alibaba (the organization responsible for China’s controversial “Sesame Credit” program), ICML showcases the latest research on artificial intelligence and its uses in fields like education.

“Education remains an outdated process that requires extensive human effort from course instructors and students,” the hosts of last summer’s “Machine Learning for Education” workshop wrote in a call for paper submissions.

In a series of sessions with titles like “Grand challenges in Educational Data Mining,” “Machine Learning for Spaced Repetition and Variable Rewards,” and “Deep Knowledge Tracing,” scientists and mathematicians presented their latest algorithms to get computers to learn from people and people to learn from computers.

BF Skinner, original developer of the teaching machine, would no doubt be highly impressed.

Parents, on the other hand, should be on high alert.

Here’s why.

First, efforts to get your child to spend more time learning from computer algorithms are well underway.  Districts like Baltimore County have embarked on multi-million dollar initiatives to bring “digital learning” to every student; the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has big incentives to put more technology in front of students; and policies that fundamentally alter the way we structure schooling to favor of digital and online options are spreading like wildfire.

Chances are, if your child is not yet plugged in for a good part of the school day, he or she will be soon.

Second, algorithms are not neutral.  Audrey Watters, author of the blog Hack Education, has written a great piece about the ways algorithms reflect the values and interests of their engineers.

This means that while computer scientists develop ways to sustain our attention on certain tasks using “gamification” and rewards, parents need to be asking what our children are being held captive by, and why. Are we comfortable having our children learn from teachers hidden behind mathematical formulas?

Third, Big Data is the fuel on which educational algorithms run, which means that your child’s data is being collected, shared, and sold. Every time your child logs onto a digital learning program, that program gathers countless data points about his or her activity onscreen.

Finally, the impact of digital and online learning on children’s academic growth, emotional well-being and physical health is severely under-researched.  Scientists are now raising concerns about the impact of excessive wi-fi radiation on children’s brain development.  Others are concerned about the impact of long-term screen exposure on vision.

Meanwhile, studies examining the impact of digital and online learning on students’ emotional health are non-existent. What is lost when children spend more time with a machine than they do with a living, breathing, caring adult?

Even studies relying on higher standardized test scores fail to make the case for increased computer use.

And yet not one of these concerns is mentioned in the latest National Educational Technology Plan.

Yesterday, I watched the CEO of a company called “1871,” give the keynote address at Pearson’s Online Learning Conference.  In his speech, the executive gushed about the innovation of companies like Uber and Airbnb – companies that are breaking the mold and “aren’t asking for permission” to do so.  The message, of course, was that this is the approach ed-tech entrepreneurs should also take.

In their quest to “innovate,” however, ed-tech and machine learning enthusiasts seem to have forgotten that experimenting on children without asking for permission to do so is unethical.

If you’re worried, speak up. It’s time to hold the mad scientists accountable.


Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

3 thoughts on “Mad Scientists Take on Education”

  1. Thank you for mentioning us down in Baltimore County again on your blog. Many of us are worried about the expenditure on the technology initiative (known as STAT) when so many of our buildings are crumbling. I would love to send you some pictures like the ones you posted from Detroit.


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